The Electric Educator: The Future of Education: a futurist's perspective

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Future of Education: a futurist's perspective

Z. Stewart MacLean, a fellow ed. tech. blogger, recommended an article titled "The Future of Education" by Thomas Frey, executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute.

I read this somewhat lengthy article which predicts drastic changes in the educational culture as we know it today, and was struck by the plausibility of Frey's ideas. I would strongly recommend this article to anyone interested in the future of education. I've done my best to summarize some the key points below. 

First, Frey  makes use of a term that I have now heard in two different places: disruptive innovation. This is the same term used by author Clayton M. Christensen in his book Disrupting Class. From what I have read, disruptive innovation is an idea that is not initially accepted or heralded by a large number of people, but is embraced and developed by a small band of "disruptors." Overtime, the innovation improves, drops in price, and gains popularity. Suddenly, the innovation becomes so popular that it replaces the industry standard seemingly overnight. Many industry giants are toppled by disruptive innovation. A perfect example of disruptive innovation is digital photagraphy.

In the context of education, on-line learning is the disruptive innovation. It is not the industry standard, but is slowly gaining market share and popularity. The traditional classroom is still the standard in education around the world. 10 years ago, on-line education was a thing of the future. Now, the Sloan Consortium is reporting that over 1 million k-12 students are taking on-line courses. The disruptive innovation of the past is rapidly becoming the standard of the future. 

Back to the article by Thomas Frey...

Frey believes that on-line education will become the standard form of education, but two things must be developed before this can occur:
"The primary missing pieces are a standard architecture for an organic courseware module and the software necessary to build this coursewareThe solution to these missing pieces will be a participative courseware-builder that allows the general public to create courses on any conceivable topic.  We expect many companies will attempt to solve this problem, but the market will quickly gravitate towards the one it likes best."  
Frey believes that ultimately, an iTunes-like system will emerge that will allow individuals and companies to easily create and distribute original courses on every topic immaginable. Once the tools to easily create and distribute courseware is available, an explosion of content will occur similar to the way that iTunes created a market for podcasts

Frey's predictions go well beyond any that I have heard or read from other places predicting that all education K-doctoral degree, will be done virtually. Schools will become tutoring centers and access points for courses rather than disseminators of instruction. 

One prediction that Frey makes is not well supported or explained- confidence based learning. 

"Confidence-based learning is designed to ensure that learning actually takes place and mastery of a topic is achieved. It is much more than simply delivering information to students. It ensures learning by assessing precisely what people know and what they don’t know without guesswork and doubt skewing the results.  It then works to rapidly remediate a learner’s gaps in knowledge and confidence."
In a nutshell, as best as I can discern, confidence based learning is a type of assessment that has the ability to determine the confidence level of a person as they answer questions on subject material. This addition can account for test takers who are good guessers. While it sounds good in theory, Frey gives no insight on how this will be done or who has or is developing the technology to do it. This assessment plan is a key component to the instruction of the future.

I admit that I am a bit biased when it comes to discussing the future of education. I firmly believe that the majority of instruction will be done through virtual learning within the next 20 years. As a young educator with a long career in front of me, I am doing everything I can to position myself to be a player in the new educational environment. 


  1. One of the major problems I have with these sorts of discussions of the future of education is that they never account for the need to certify an education.

    If I'm an employer I can look at an existing educational program and have some confidence that I know what went into it and what might result from it. Even if my confidence is unfounded I have some handles to grab hold of. Now, an individual with an online portfolio listing all of their coursework from desperate corners of the internet and examples of work also give me handles, but when I have 500 applicants to screen and only enough time to spend a few minutes on each one... I'm likely to to focus on those with degrees from places I know.

    I wish it wasn't so. Personally, I know I can (and do) learn more on my own and the material I'm learning is more relevant. But the truth remains. Someone with Dr. in front of their name will be held up as more of an authority than me even if I know more.

  2. Steve, I agree that this virtual-school vision does carry with it a "Wild West" vibe. There are organizations standardizing the approach. K-12, Inc. is running virtual schools in several states.

    John, what are you doing specifically to position yourself? As teacher in a typically monolithic public school, I'm wondering what I can do to develop my skills to become a learning specialist when the virtual-school model invades the mainstream.

  3. One of the things that I've been doing is a lot of reading about the whole k-12 virtual school movement. I also submitted a proposal to my school to teach their first on-line course. This summer I plan on developing an on-line course that I will be marketing to home schoolers.

    Other than that, I just try to to keep up with developing technologies. Podcasting (video), bloging, and discussion boards are going to be be key components of the virtual school.

    Thanks for your comments and readership Steve & Joel!

  4. Have you looked at WiZiQ?

    They offer a cool set of tools for doing a synchronous online class. It will also record, allowing you to be asynchronous as well.

    They also try to hook up teachers with students.

    I've been looking at some of the virtual free classrooms because they provide a set of unified tools for a Wiimote Whiteboard as well.

  5. Enjoyed your blog. Clearly education like all other industries - will change. The political agenda will keep schools going for a long time but systems and innovation will eventually bring school enrolments to a point of change.

    Whilst the "educational factors" mandate these changes; our social constructs aren't quite ready. Universities will take the first hit and validity of certification and assessment will become a primary concern.

    Secondary Schools will see some drift to home schooling but with western workforces taking parents out of the home, the function of schooling will still be a core business in my opinion.

    I think we will see the emergence of smaller sized community schools or "networked schools" which share resourcing and staff - initally of specialised staff. I viewed the following video today also:

    Paul Whitehead


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